The blind can see right through Daredevil, Marvel Comics' — and the box office's — "Man Without Fear," and they're not afraid to say so.
Daredevil — a New York lawyer named Matt Murdock by day, Hell's Kitchen crimefighter by night — became comic books' first blind superhero when Stan Lee introduced him in 1964. And he has now become the first blind superhero to have a hit movie, which topped the box office in its first two weeks of release.
Some advocates are happy to see a blind superhero come to the big screen and believe Daredevil is a generally positive portrayal of the blind and visually impaired. But they also have one important message: Blind people do not need super powers to be self-sufficient and lead normal lives.
"You tend to get this 'superhero' portrayal. This 'look at what they've done' over and over again, when in reality, there are lots of blind people out there doing lots of things," said Brent Hopkins, communications specialist for the American Foundation for the Blind. "They are normal people who enjoy everyday, normal things. … To live with a disability, you don't have to be a superhero."
Some of the concerns expressed by blind advocates over Daredevil mirror the complaints of ethnic groups and groups with various disabilities or conditions that feel unrepresented or stereotyped in television and film.
Kingpin, NBC's recent miniseries about a Mexican drug cartel, outraged several Hispanic groups. The movie Kangaroo Jack upset the Epilepsy Foundation with some references to epileptics. In 2001, the Immune Deficiency Foundation urged Disney, parent company of Touchstone Pictures (and ABCNEWS) , not to release the comedy Bubble Boy because of its depiction of a person born with a rare immune deficiency disease.
"Whenever you're a member of a certain ethnic group or gender or whatever group that isn't normally seen on television or in film, any single depiction carries all this weight," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"One of the big problems with Amos-n-Andy when it first came on television [in the 1950s] was that that was pretty much it," he said. "That was pretty much the only experience many people had of African-Americans. No one complains that Homer Simpson is a white European-American who is stupid and overweight because there are a number of other portrayals out there where you have them as heroes, doctors and everything you can think of."
From Mr. Van Ranseleer to Geordi
Major blind characters have been few and far between in film and television. Last year, Emily Watson played the shy, blind love interest of a serial killer who nearly made her one of his victims in the movie Red Dragon, the prequel to Silence of the Lambs. Perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a blind person was Al Pacino's Oscar-winning performance in 1992's Scent of a Woman.
On television, Jake (Alex Desert), the blind owner of a local newsstand, is one of the most popular characters on CBS' Becker. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured LeVar Burton as Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge, who flew the starship Enterprise with the help of a high-tech visor he wore and electronic implants. The 1971 series Longstreet focused on a blind detective played by actor/producer James Franciscus, while Bill Quinn provided wit and wisdom as the blind, elderly bar patron Mr. Van Ranseleer on Archie Bunker's Place in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"I liked Geordi, and Jake on Becker is a pretty cool character, even if he doesn't use a lot of the blindness techniques and you never see him with a cane," said Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, director of special programs at the National Federation of the Blind. "My concern is that characters are portrayed in such a way that the only way they can be competent is if they are somehow exceptional, have some kind of superpower or had some kind of technology that enabled them to see.
"One of the greatest misconceptions out there is that blind people's other senses are somehow enhanced. That is not true," Zaborowski said. "We tend to use our other senses more but there is no evidence our other senses are greater than a person with sight."
A Hero Not Created for the Blind
Daredevil may be a blind superhero, but he was not necessarily created for the blind. He is not supposed to represent a typical blind or visually impaired individual.
Lee did not come up with Daredevil because he was an advocate for the blind. Daredevil was one of the many new heroes he created in the 1960s who dealt with very human obstacles, like physical disabilities. In the comic book, young Matt Murdock was blinded when he pushed an elderly man out of the way of a truck and radioactive waste from its load splashed into his eyes.
The waste augmented his other senses and his ability to perceive the world around him. Murdock became a costumed vigilante after his father, a boxer, was killed for refusing to throw a fight.
Daredevil the comic book has never been produced in Braille or in audio form. And according to the Braille Institute, comic books have never been produced in Braille. Comics are primarily visual art form where the writing has to be condensed in small panels. Arguably, the art outside and within the comic book is what first attracts and hooks readers; the writing keeps them coming back.
Still, Marvel said it could explore creating Braille and audiotape versions of its comics, given its entry into mass-market book retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks and Borders.
Balancing Entertainment and Reality
To make Daredevil more realistic and help actors Ben Affleck and Scott Terra, who played the teenage Murdoch, simulate the gestures of a blind person, the movie's producers did hire motivational speaker and blind consultant Tom Sullivan.
While pleased with the emergence of Daredevil, some critics hope more realistic blind major characters will be seen in movies and TV shows where their disability will not be part of the main plot.
"What I would really like to see is a blind character in the movies and television just leading a normal life, where his blindness is not the whole center of attention, holding a job, and having fun, living a full life," said Zaborowski.
But is that realistic? It's difficult for blind TV or movie characters to ignore their handicap entirely, and a disability is an easy way for writers to engage their audience — even if it tends to be hackneyed.
"But you also have the question of whether or not a particular character was meant to be an accurate portrayal of a group to begin with," said Thompson.
"But, no, it's not unreasonable to expect blind people or others with handicaps [on TV] to be placed in situations that are the same as they would encounter in the real world, where the show or storyline would not be about their particular handicap," he said. "In work environments, the people around them wouldn't normally focus on it. They'd just get used to it. … We should expect a more diverse portrayal, but things will never be shown in a utopian way."
And maybe, when it comes to portraying the blind, the best anyone can hope for is to widen the tunnel vision.